Berry season is beginning in Oregon. Strawberries ripen first, and they're followed quickly by raspberries, blueberries, currants, and blackberries! While these berries are ripe in your area, prices can be so low (especially if you pick them yourself) that you'll want to stock up.
But what should you do with all of that fresh fruit? Here are three techniques to make those berries do double duty (now and later). These methods are so easy that it's just silly not to use them.
Freeze the berries whole
The secret to freezing berries whole is to freeze them first and then pack them. Find a cookie sheet that will fit in your freezer. Line it with waxed paper, and load it with clean, de-stemmed berries in a single layer, spacing them so they're not touching. Freeze until solid (an hour or two), and then pack into freezer container or Ziploc bags.
Doing this will prevent the berries from clumping together and forming a solid mass, which will allow you to use just the amount you want without thawing them all. You can usually get away with skipping this step with blueberries; they have a natural waxy layer than helps keep them separate.
Whole berries from the freezer are perfect for making smoothies. Don't thaw them — they'll function sort of like berry-ice cubes to chill the smoothies as they flavor them. I like to combine lowfat vanilla yogurt, over-ripe bananas, frozen berries, and a bit of fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Thawed, whole berries make wonderful cobblers and crisps. I freeze some bags intended for “mixed berry cobbler”. As different berries ripen over the season, I freeze them and add a bit of each kind to the bag, creating a mixture of berries that is ready to thaw and bake. I generally don't sweeten mine as I freeze them, but if you know you'll be adding sugar for a particular recipe later on, you can add it now. The sugar helps the berries survive the cold storage.
Purée and freeze
Berry purée is wonderful drizzled over vanilla ice cream or other desserts such as cheesecake, poundcake, or angel food cake. But my favorite use for purée is to make thirst-quenching berry lemonade. I prefer not to mix berries for this, as I like the unique flavor of each. For each 12 ounces of frozen lemonade concentrate, you'll need about 2 cups of berry purée — plus sweetener and/or lemon juice to suit your taste.
With your blender, simply purée the berries (use strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries), pour into a Tupperware (or reuse large yogurt containers), and freeze. With strawberries, I like to leave it a bit chunky. With seedy berries like raspberries or blackberries, I purée it and pass it through a sieve to remove the seeds before freezing.
When you're ready to make the berry lemonade, simply mix the lemonade concentrate, the amount of water called for in the package directions, and two cups of berry purée (completely thawed, or partially thawed to a slush). Stir and taste. You may want to add a bit more sweetener (or fresh lemon juice if you like things really tart). Serves about 6. This mixture also makes great popsicles! You can also freeze the berry purée in ice cube trays and just add a bit at a time to drinks over the summer.
Make freezer jam
Some people (like J.D.) prefer freezer jam to cooked jam. It often has a softer texture, brighter color and fresher taste. And because it's frozen, there are never any worries about whether it's been safely canned.
In addition, you can make freezer jam with little investment in equipment. If you have the freezer space, it's well-worth making the small effort it requires to whip up a batch. I try to make enough to last us 'till the next year's berry crop.
Simply follow the directions on a package of pectin, or do a Google search for “berry freezer jam recipe“. Making freezer jam is extremely simple, and can take less than half an hour! Just be sure to stir your jam until the sugar is fully dissolved, or the crystals will give it a grainy texture.
On a nippy winter morning, toast and homemade jam are a treat! Because of its soft consistency, you can also try zapping the thawed jam in the microwave for a bit and then pour it over pancakes, waffles, or thick French toast. Yum! You might even get hooked on freezer jam and decide to delve into other fruits later in the season. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches, and nectarines lend themselves well to this technique.
No matter what's ripening in your neck of the woods, try to preserve some food while prices are low. Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season is like finding a sale on produce. And purchasing locally-grown foods when you can helps nearby farmers, too. But the best reason is the taste: food allowed to ripen fully before it is picked just tastes better, so get out there and pick some today — then load your freezer with summer's bounty.
Smoothie photo by Dannynic. Berry photo by J.D.